A Study of Hawthorne, by G. P. Lathrop

Chapter 6

The Old Manse.


There is a Providence in the lives of men who act sincerely, which makes each step lead, with the best result, to the next phase of their careers. By his participation in the excellent endeavor at Brook Farm, Hawthorne had prepared himself to enjoy to the full his idyllic retirement at the Old Manse, in Concord. “For now, being happy,” he says, “I felt as if there were no question to be put.”

Hawthorne was married in July, 1842, and went at once to this his first home. Just before going to Brook Farm he had written “Grandfather’s Chair,” the first part of a series of sketches of New England history for children, which was published by Miss Peabody in Boston, and Wiley and Putnam in New York; but the continuation was interrupted by his stay at the farm. In 1842 he wrote a second portion, and also some biographical stories, all of which gained an immediate success. He also resumed his contributions to the “Democratic Review,” the most brilliant periodical of the time, in which Whittier, Longfellow, Lowell, Poe, and other noted authors made their appearance. It was published at Washington, and afterward at New York, and made considerable pretensions to a national character. Hawthorne had been engaged as a contributor, at a fair rate, in 1838, and his articles had his name appended (not always Hie practice at that time) in a way that shows the high estimation into which he had already grown. “John Inglefield’s Thanksgiving,” “The Celestial Railroad,” “The Procession of Life,” “Fire Worship,” “Buds and Bird Voices,” and “Roger Malvin’s Burial,” all appeared in the “Democratic” in 1843. “Rappaccini’s Daughter” and other tales followed in the next year; and in 1845 the second volume of “Twice–Told Tales” was brought out at Boston. During the same year Hawthorne edited the “African Journals” of his friend Bridge, then an officer in the navy, who had just completed a cruise. The editor’s name evidently carried great weight, even then. “The mere announcement, ‘edited by Nathaniel Hawthorne,’” said one of the critics, “is enough to entitle this book to a place among the American classics.” I dwell upon this, because an attempt has been made to spread the idea that Hawthorne up to the time of writing “The Scarlet Letter” was still obscure and discouraged, and that only then, by a timely burst of appreciation in certain quarters, was he rescued from oblivion. The truth is, that he had won himself an excellent position, was popular, and was himself aware by this time of the honor in which he was held. Even when he found that the small profits of literature were forcing him into office again, he wrote to Bridge: “It is rather singular that I should need an office: for nobody’s scribblings seem to be more acceptable than mine.” The explanation of this lies in the wretchedly dependent state of native authorship at that time. The law of copyright had not then attained to even the refined injustice which it has now reached. “I continue,” he wrote, in 1844, “to scribble tales with good success so far as regards empty praise, some notes of which, pleasant enough to my ears, have come from across the Atlantic. But the pamphlet and piratical system has so broken up all regular literature, that I am forced to work hard for small gains.”

Besides the labors already enumerated, he edited for the “Democratic” some “Papers of an old Dartmoor Prisoner” (probably some one of his “sea-dog” acquaintance in Salem). He was in demand among the publishers. A letter from Evert Duyckinck (New York, October 2, 1845), who was then in the employ of Wiley and Putnam, publishers of the “African Cruiser,” says of that book: “The English notices are bounteous in praise. No American book in a long time has been so well noticed.” The same firm were now eager to bring out his recent tales, and were also, as appears in the following from Duyckinck, urging the prosecution of another scheme: “I hope you will not think me a troublesome fellow,” he writes, “if I drop you another line with the vociferous cry, MSS.! MSS.! Mr. Wiley’s American series is athirst for the volumes of tales; and how stands the prospect for the History of Witchcraft, I whilom spoke of?” The History Hawthorne wisely eschewed; but early in 1846 the “Mosses from an Old Manse” was issued at New York, in two volumes. This attracted at once a great deal of praise, and it certainly shows a wider range and fuller maturity than the first book of “Twice–Told Tales”; yet I doubt whether the stories of this group have taken such intimate hold of any body of readers as those, although recommending themselves to a larger audience. Hawthorne’s life at the Old Manse was assuredly one of the brightest epochs of his career: an unalloyed happiness had come to him, he was full of the delight of first possession in his home, a new and ample companionship was his, and the quiet course of the days, with their openings into healthful outdoor exercise, made a perfect balance between creation and recreation. The house in which he dwelt was itself a little island of the past, standing intact above the flood of events; all around was a mild, cultivated country, broken into gentle variety of “hills to live with,” and touched with just enough wildness to keep him from tiring of it: the stream that flowed by his orchard was for him an enchanted river. He renewed the pleasant sports of boyhood with it, fishing and boating in summer, and in winter whistling over its clear, black ice, on rapid skates. In the more genial months, the garden gave him pleasant employment; and in his journal-musings, the thought gratifies him that he has come into a primitive relation with nature, and that the two occupants of the Manse are in good faith a new Adam and Eve, so far as the happiness of that immemorial pair remained unbroken. The charm of these experiences has all been distilled into the descriptive chapter which prefaces the “Mosses”; and such more personal aspects of it as could not be mixed in that vintage have been gathered, like forgotten clusters of the harvest, into the Note–Books. It remains to comment, here, on the contrast between the peaceful character of these first years at Concord and the increased sombreness of some of the visions there recorded.

The reason of this is, that Hawthorne’s genius had now waxed to a stature which made its emanations less immediately dependent on his actual mood. I am far from assuming an exact autobiographical value for the “Twice–Told Tales”; a theory which the writer himself condemned. But they, as he has also said, require “to be read in the clear brown twilight atmosphere in which they were written”; while the “Mosses” are the work of a man who has learned to know the world, and the atmosphere in which they were composed seems almost dissonant with the tone of some of them. “The Birthmark,” “The Bosom Serpent,” “Rappaccini’s Daughter,” and that terrible and lurid parable of “Young Goodman Brown,” are made up of such horror as Hawthorne has seldom expressed elsewhere. “The Procession of Life” is a fainter vibration of the same chord of awfulness. Such concentration of frightful truth do these most graceful and exquisitely wrought creations contain, that the intensity becomes almost poisonous. What is the meaning of this added revelation of evil? The genius of Hawthorne was one which used without stint that costliest of all elements in production — time; the brooding propensity was indispensable to him; and, accordingly, as some of these conceptions had occurred to him a good while before the carrying out, they received great and almost excessive elaboration. The reality of sin, the pervasiveness of evil, had been but slightly insisted upon in the earlier tales: in this series, the idea bursts up like a long-buried fire, with earth-shaking strength, and the pits of Hell seem yawning beneath us. Dismal, too, is the story of “Roger Malvin’s Burial,” and dreary “The Christmas Banquet,” with its assembly of the supremely wretched. In “Earth’s Holocaust” we get the first result of Hawthorne’s insight into the demonianism of reformatory schemers who forget that the centre of every true reform is the heart. And, incidentally, this marks out the way to “The Scarlet Letter” on the one hand, and “The Blithedale Romance” on the other, in which the same theme assumes two widely different phases. Thus we find the poet seeking more and more certainly the central fountain of moral suggestion from which he drew his best inspirations. The least pleasing quality of the work is, I think, its overcharged allegorical burden. Some of the most perfect of all his tales are here, but their very perfection makes one recoil the more at the supremacy of their purely intellectual interest. One feels a certain chagrin, too, on finishing them, as if the completeness of embodiment had given the central idea a shade of too great obviousness. Hawthorne is most enjoyable and most true to himself when he offers us the chalice of poetry filled to the very brim with the clear liquid of moral truth. But, at first, there seems to have been a conflict between his aesthetic and his ethical impulse. Coleridge distinguishes the symbolical from the allegorical, by calling it a part of some whole which it represents. “Allegory cannot be other than spoken consciously; whereas in the symbol it is very possible that the general truth represented may be working unconsciously in the writer’s mind. . . . The advantage of symbolical writing over allegory is that it presumes no disjunction of faculties, but simple predominance.” Now in the “Allegories of the Heart,” collected in the “Mosses,” there is sometimes an extreme consciousness of the idea to be illustrated; and though the ideas are in a measure symbolical, yet they are on the whole too disintegrating in their effect to leave the artistic result quite generous and satisfying. Allegory itself, as an echo of one’s thought, is often agreeable, and pleases through surprise; yet it is apt to be confusing, and smothers the poetic harmony. In his romances, Hawthorne escapes into a hugely significant, symbolic sphere which relieves the reader of this partial vexation. “The Celestial Railroad,” of course, must be excepted from censure, being the sober parody of a famous work, and in itself a masterly satirical allegory. And in two cases, “Drowne’s Wooden Image,” and “The Artist of the Beautiful,” we find the most perfect imaginable symbolism. In one, the story of Pygmalion compressed and Yankeefied, yet rendered additionally lovely by its homeliness; and the essence of all artistic life, in the other, presented in a form that cannot be surpassed. “Mrs. Bullfrog” is a sketch which is ludicrously puzzling, until one recalls Hawthorne’s explanation: “The story was written as a mere experiment in that style; it did not come from any depth within me — neither my heart nor mind had anything to do with it.” [Footnote: American Note–Books, Vol. II.] It is valuable, in this light, as a distinct boundary-mark in one direction. But the essay vein which had produced some of the clearest watered gems in the “Twice–Told Tales,” begins in the “Mosses” to yield increase of brilliance and beauty; and we here find, with the gathering strength of imagination — the enlarged power for bringing the most unreal things quite into the circle of realities — a compensating richness in describing the simply natural, as in “Buds and Bird Voices,” “Fire Worship,” “The Old Apple–Dealer.”

Everything in these two volumes illustrates forcibly the brevity, the absolutely right proportion of language to idea, which from the first had marked Hawthorne with one trait, at least, quite unlike any displayed by the writers with whom he was compared, and entirely foreign to the mood of the present century. This sense of form, the highest and last attribute of a creative writer, provided it comes as the result of a deep necessity of his genius, and not as a mere acquirement of art, is a quality that has not been enough noticed in him; doubtless because it is not enough looked for anywhere by the majority of critics and readers, in these days of adulteration and of rapid manufacture out of shoddy and short-fibred stuffs. We demand a given measure of reading, good or bad, and producers of it are in great part paid for length: so that with much using of thin and shapeless literature, we have forgotten how good is that which is solid and has form. But, having attained this perfection in the short story, Hawthorne thereafter abandoned it for a larger mould.

The “Mosses,” as I have said, gained him many admirers. In them he for the first time touched somewhat upon the tendencies of the current epoch, and took an entirely independent stand among the philosophers of New England. Yet, for a while, there was the oddest misconception of his attitude by those at a distance. A Whig magazine, pleased by his manly and open conservatism, felt convinced that he must be a Whig, though he was, at the moment of the announcement, taking office under a Democratic President. On the other hand, a writer in “The Church Review” of New Haven, whom we shall presently see more of, was incited to a tilt against him as a rabid New England theorist, the outcome, of phalansteries, a subverter of marriage and of all other holy things. In like manner, while Hawthorne was casting now and then a keen dart at the Transcendentalists, and falling asleep over “The Dial” (as his journals betray), Edgar Poe, a literary Erinaceus, wellnigh exhausted his supply of quills upon the author, as belonging to a school toward which he felt peculiar acerbity. “Let him mend his pen,” cried Poe, in his most high-pitched strain of personal abuse, “get a bottle of visible ink, hang (if possible) the editor of ‘The Dial,’ cut Mr. Alcott, and throw out of the window to the pigs all his odd numbers of the ‘North American Review.’” This paper of Poe’s is a laughable and pathetic case of his professedly punctilious analysis covering the most bitter attacks, with traces of what looks like envy, and others of a resistless impulse to sympathize with a literary brother as against the average mind. He begins with a discussion of originality and peculiarity: “In one sense, to be peculiar is to be original,” he says, but the true originality is “not the uniform but the continuous peculiarity, . . . giving its own hue to everything it touches,” and touching everything. From this flimsy and very uncertain principle, which seems to make two different things out of the same thing, he goes on to conclude that, “the fact is, if Mr. Hawthorne were really original, he could not fail of making himself felt by the public. But the fact is, he is not original in any sense.” He then attempts to show that Hawthorne’s peculiarity is derivative, and selects Tieck as the source of this idiosyncrasy. Perhaps his insinuation may be the origin of Hawthorne’s effort to read some of the German author, while at the Old Manse — an attempt given up in great fatigue. Presently, the unhappy critic brings up his favorite charge of plagiarism; and it happens, as usual, that the writer borrowed from is Poe himself! The similarity which he discovers is between “Howe’s Masquerade” and “William Wilson,” and is based upon fancied resemblances of situation, which have not the least foundation in the facts, and upon the occurrence in both stories of the phrase, “Villain, unmuffle yourself!” In the latter half of his review, written a little later, Mr. Poe takes quite another tack:—

“Of Mr. Hawthorne’s tales we would say emphatically that they belong to the highest region of art — an art subservient to genius of a very lofty order. We had supposed, with good reason for so supposing, that he had been thrust into his present position by one of the impudent cliques who beset our literature; . . . but we have been most agreeably mistaken. . . . Mr. Hawthorne’s distinctive trait is invention, creation, imagination, originality — a trait which, in the literature of fiction, is positively worth all the rest. But the nature of the originality . . . is but imperfectly understood. . . . The inventive or original mind as frequently displays itself in novelty of tone as in novelty of matter. Mr. Hawthorne is original in all points.”

This, certainly, is making generous amends; but before he leaves the subject, the assertion is repeated, that “he is peculiar, and not original.”

Though an extravagant instance, this tourney of Poe’s represents pretty well the want of understanding with which Hawthorne was still received by many readers. His point of view once seized upon, nothing could be more clear and simple than his own exposition of refined and evasive truths; but the keen edge of his perception remained quite invisible to some. Of the “Twice–Told Tales” Hawthorne himself wrote:—

“The sketches are not, it is hardly necessary to say, profound; but it is rather more remarkable that they so seldom, if ever, show any design on the writer’s part to make them so. . . . Every sentence, so far as it embodies thought or sensibility, may be understood and felt by anybody who will give himself the trouble to read it, and will take up the book in a proper mood.”

But it was hard for people to find that mood, because in fact the Tales were profound. Their language was clear as crystal; but all the more dazzlingly shone through the crystal that new light of Hawthorne’s gaze.

After nearly four years, Hawthorne’s tenancy of the Manse came to an end, and he returned to Salem, with some prospect of an office there from the new Democratic government of Polk. It is said that President Tyler had at one time actually appointed him to the Salem post-office, but was induced to withdraw his name. There were local factions that kept the matter in abeyance. The choice, in any case, lay between the Naval Office and the surveyorship, and Bridge urged Hawthorne’s appointment to the latter. “Whichever it be,” wrote Hawthorne, “it is to you that I shall owe it, among so many other solid kindnesses. I have as true friends as any man has, but you have been the friend in need and the friend indeed.” At this time he was seriously in want of some profitable employment, for he had received almost nothing from the magazine. It was the period of credit, and debts were hard to collect. His journal at the Old Manse refers to the same trouble. I have been told that, besides losing the value of many of his contributions to the “Democratic,” through the failure of the magazine, he had advanced money to the publishers, which was never repaid; but this has not been corroborated, and as he had lost nearly everything at Brook Farm, it is a little doubtful. At length, he was installed as surveyor in the Salem Custom–House, where he hoped soon to begin writing at ease.


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